UPDATE: Bennington spa businesses targeted for human trafficking, prostitution
BENNINGTON - Bennington Police, with the assistance of the FBI, executed search warrants Tuesday afternoon at two massage parlors in Bennington as part of an ongoing investigation into human trafficking and prostitution that may include as many as 10 women.
Local police and federal agents from Rutland and Albany, N.Y., served the warrants simultaneously at Green Spa at 412 Main St. and Cozy Spa at 240 North St. The search warrants, served just before 12:30 p.m. on Tuesday, were granted by the Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division.
Bennington Police Detective Sgt. David S. Rowland, who is leading the investigation, said police seized computers, cell phones, "thousands" of dollars in cash and "many" business records, which he said were the primary focus of the searches.
"What we have to do now is go through all of this stuff and see what it means and what it corresponds to," Rowland said.
The searches involved six officers from Bennington Police, eight FBI agents and two Vermont State Police troopers.
No arrests were made Tuesday, but are expected in the future. Rowland said investigators have been investigating the parlors for nearly two years, conducting surveillance and interviewing people who have been to the two businesses. They received letters and complaints about the spas that prompted the investigation.
"It started off with rumors and different things flying around. Then we start looking at different things, talking to people. There were surveillances conducted at both locations - joint surveillances and information was garnered from that. Some information was gained through the Internet. Lots of interviews done over the past six months," Rowland said.
Police spoke with three women of Chinese descent at the two spa locations on Tuesday. There could be between five and 10 women forced into working at the spas in Bennington, Rowland said.
Evidence was recovered indicating that human trafficking and prostitution has occurred at both spas, Rowland said. Activity at Green Spa may be linked to a larger ring, he said, while any criminal activity at Cozy Spa appears to be isolated.
"There's ties to a larger city and information points in that direction," Rowland said when asked about Green Spa.
Agents with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement were not on scene Tuesday but helped to provide the immigration status of the three Chinese women. Rowland said Tuesday evening that the status of the two women police spoke to at Green Spa was unclear.
"We have confirmed that one is here legally, has been here legally for a long time. The other two we're still in that checking phase," he said.
There were also indications that some people associated with the spas may be working against their will, according to Rowland. He said "deceit" and information about family members in foreign countries has led them to that belief.
Rowland said a victim of human trafficking may not always appear to be a victim to passersby.
"It's not typically what we would think of somebody chained in a corner. It could be financial indebtedness and different things like that. To an onlooker it would look like somebody is free to walk out the door, yet, they really aren't," he said.
The two massage parlors are "marginally" connected. "There was a common denominator at one point that may or may not be still around," Rowland said.
Some women involved are being looked at as victims, according to police. Advocates were on hand Tuesday to provide assistance with any needs they may have had. However, none of the three women accepted any offer of assistance, Doucette said.
Help will continue to be available for anyone that comes forward as a victim of human trafficking, Doucette said.
Police are also looking into the spas' clients. Rowland said clients have traveled "a great distance," often an hour or more, to visit the spas. "We know that from the surveillance conducted," he said.
Business records seized on Tuesday may include names, addresses and payment information, Rowland said.
Around 2:15 p.m., shortly after police left the Cozy Spa, a woman who would not provide her name said police found nothing at the business.
"Not here. Nothing going on here," she said.
The Cozy Spa business name was registered with the Vermont Secretary of State's office by Young Shin in December 2011. Police said they spoke with her at the North Street location on Tuesday.
The woman at Cozy Spa, believed to be Shin, denied that any improper activity occured at the business. She said there are no other employees at the business. The woman also suggested the spa would be more popular if the allegations were true.
"Do you ever see any customers? You better believe we'd have more customers," she said. "We're not the place."
The doors at Green Spa were locked around 5 p.m. when a Banner reporter approached. A woman came to the door but declined to comment. State records show that the business was registered in the name of Yu De Jiang in July 2012. Inson Everitt is also listed as an agent of the company.
Police said they did not see any licenses issued by the state at either spa that would allow them to function as a massage business. Rowland said local police have no authority to shut them down.
However, he said it's unlikely they will be able to function well as a business.
"I suspect that based upon what we took they're not going to be able to run very efficiently," Rowland said.
FBI agents are interested in determining if human trafficking is part of the businesses. Doucette said the FBI provided a translator Tuesday and agents will likely return to Bennington next week to help sort and analyze evidence.
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